Netanyahu frets over divided right as electoral race takes shape

Now that all the parties running in Israel's September elections are registered, lingering schisms among the right bode ill for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

al-monitor A general view shows the plenum at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, Jerusalem, May 29, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

Topics covered

yair lapid, ehud barak, blue and white, israeli politics, amir peretz, israeli right wing, likud, israeli elections, benjamin netanyahu

Aug 2, 2019

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a ritual. Whenever he gets the results of a new poll, he jots down the number of seats by party and then divvies them up into two blocs: left and right. It used to be easy. The Likud would be listed in the right-wing bloc, along with other smaller right-wing parties, the ultra-Orthodox and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. On a good day, that bloc would be worth around 70 seats, ensuring that Netanyahu retains power. Then Liberman reshuffled the deck.

In what has become the big drama of the current election, Liberman pulled out of the two main blocs and is playing on both sides instead. All that seems to matter to him is that the ultra-Orthodox are kept out of the equation. The polls show that without him, Netanyahu will not be able to form a right-wing government with the ultra-Orthodox. Compounding the uncertainty is his failure to achieve a merger to the right of the Likud, as became apparent Aug. 1, when the final party lists were submitted.

It is no secret that Netanyahu wanted to maximize the number of votes for the right-wing bloc. It didn’t happen. He was hoping to have the United Right alongside Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right running in parallel to the Likud. As it happened, the United Right merged with the New Right, leaving out the radical Jewish Power faction (which ran on one ticket with the United Right in April). On July 21, Netanyahu's former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked became head of the United Right list.

Netanyahu tried to pressure Shaked to join forces with the Jewish Power list, now headed by attorney Itamar Ben Gvir, best known for being a follower of Rabbi Meir Kahane and his racist ideology. No one knows how many voters Jewish Power might attract (in the elections for the 19th Knesset, it received only 66,000), but the polls indicate that it will not pass the voter threshold of about 140,000. Netanyahu’s failure to reinsert Jewish Power into the United Right means precious votes on the right will be wasted.

Shaked and her partner in the New Right party, former Minister Naftali Bennett (who is also now part of the United Right leadership), withstood the pressure and refused to accept Ben Gvir’s demand for the fifth slot on the new right-wing party’s list. Negotiations continued up until the very last minute.

Once the final lists were submitted, accusations on the right came quickly. “These divisions on the right will result in the loss of many votes and bear responsibility for a left-wing government, headed by [Blue and White's Yair] Lapid and {Benny] Gantz. People must vote for the Likud and the Likud only,” stated the Likud. Once again, Netanyahu is trying to take seats from the other right-wing parties to ensure that he heads the largest one.

A mirror image of the drama on the right happened on the center-left. The Blue and White Party faced a similar problem when the parties to its left were unable to achieve a full merger. Labor chair Amir Peretz refused to unite with the Democratic Camp, which includes Meretz, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Labor Knesset member Stav Shaffir. The polls show that Peretz' dreams of coaxing votes from the soft right to his camp are unraveling. It is no wonder that accusations were flying in the center-left as soon as the final lists were submitted.

Political activist Eldad Yaniv described the situation as a “march of folly.” Yaniv, who supported the return of Barak to politics and the consolidation of parties on the left, said, “Two small parties found themselves trying to swallow each other up just so that they can survive.” Labor and the Democratic Camp will end up fighting each other just to pass the electoral threshold, and that’s not the only problem. Peretz realizes that his potential seats are currently held by the Blue and White Party, so he attacked it too. In his speech to the Labor conference this week, he said, “Today, it is obvious to everyone that whatever Blue and White sold the public was a big bluff. They created a political initiative that had one goal, one purpose, and that was to replace Benjamin Netanyahu.”

Peretz stuck with that line even after the final lists were submitted. He accused Gantz of flip-flopping when asked whether he would agree to sit with Netanyahu. “Benny,” he said, “if we want to preserve our democracy, and if we want to work toward a serious achievement on the diplomatic front … it should be our common mission to replace Netanyahu, not sit with him.”

At the same time, Peretz was forced to repel an attack by Liberman, who claimed that it is actually Peretz who plans to join Netanyahu’s coalition in exchange for the Likud supporting him for the presidency.

The result of all this is a very strange election. Once Liberman broke the traditional dichotomy between left and right, neither side can be sure it can form a government. Given the political breakdown at this stage and considering the polls, it is not at all clear what the next government will look like, or even who will head it. The really interesting fights will take place within the two blocs, with both Gantz and Netanyahu working to get as many seats as they can and head the largest party.

But Gantz’ position is more tenuous than Netanyahu’s. Tensions between Lapid’s camp and the generals are a given within the Blue and White Party. Lapid is leading an independent campaign, freely lambasting Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox. In contrast, Gantz is running a much more formal campaign, visiting the rabbinical courts and avoiding personal attacks on Netanyahu.

In contrast, Netanyahu has a strong party behind him. One fact sticks out in all the polls that Netanyahu loves to analyze: Likud voters are very consistent in voting for the party. According to the polls, Netanyahu’s lower threshold stands at 28 seats. Certain voices in Blue and White say that they would be willing to join a coalition with the Likud as long as Netanyahu is not head of the party on account of the criminal charges he faces. The problem is that no senior Likud official would dare rise up against Netanyahu, at least at this stage, because that would mean alienating Likud voters. This fear is the prime minister’s security net.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings